If you don’t teach me something new, you are not my friend


What could be a good mantra to welcome the new year than to insist on making relationships also learning bonds? If there are three circles or venn diagrams, learning, loving and living, I will always want to be at their intersection. How can one live without learning and can we learn without loving or vice versa? May be one can argue that one can learn from any situation, but the issue is, how do we learn so that it empowers us and not makes us despondent or cynic. Vikram Sarabhai was one of the visionaries about scientific and management future of India who operated at this intersection. It is not surprising that he created so many institutions of excellence which continue to breed excellence so many years after him.

One of the biggest disease of our times is cynicism. More privileged one is, higher is the degree of cynicism. I think each one of us should make a New Year resolution which puts pressure on our relationships. Unless you teach me something new, should I call you my friend? You might suggest that but learning is in the hands of learner. One can only take a horse to water point, but not  make it drink water unless it wants. But can curiosity not become infectious?

Let me make a paradoxical statement. As I have asked in my book on Grassroots Innovations also, is surprise a necessary condition for learning? Can we really live optimistically if we don’t discover new areas of ignorance every day? But why does complacency set in, why do we become lethargic, why do we start repeating ourselves, what is the source of our inertia and self-imposed limits to know? Learning requires immense brain activity which consumes more energy than many other body functions. Our agility in life is directly linked to learning ability. I am very surprised when I find young people complaining about getting tired after a few hours of intense work.  Both, the lack of concentration and lack of willingness to be questioned seem to take a toll of our energy levels.

First step then is to walk and walk a lot, think while standing and if possible while doing manual work including cooking in kitchen. Physical agility lubricates our willingness to listen I believe. It may not create it, but if it is there, our innate capability to listen may be enhanced.

Second is to seek randomness, situations where our control does not exist, a deliberate strategy to disempower ourselves. Meeting people who know something more than us can help. The know-all attitude is characteristic of certain professionals or even lay people and it is not surprising that they age faster.

Third is to court uncertainty, rather than relish predictable paths. If we have not embarked upon a plan with high probability of failure, then we are not taking risk. But risk taking is dangerous and hurtful sometimes. We seem to link failure of an idea with the failure of individual concerned. There could not be anything farther form truth than this. Yet so many people believe in it, women seem to be more cautious than men and that explains why they start giving up the race of life when they are close to goal post. We need to be empathetic with such potential leaders and learners. May be because women take more responsibility of their context, they sometimes sacrifice focus on content. Their compassion becomes a constraint.

Fourth step is to pay no attention to what others say or do when one is embarking upon one’s strategic mission. One of the most celebrated athlete of our times, famously known as  flying Sikh, did what has come to be called as  Milkha Singh syndrome. Milkha singh was ahead of all racers in Rome Olympics till almost last. He looked back to see others and became fourth. Majority in India seems to suffer from this syndrome. We are more concerned with what others are saying or doing than what we need to focus on, or think or learn about. Is it surprising that many of us are very good for a very long time but stop short of making a breakthrough? With due respect to Milkha Singh, I may add that I am using that act of looking back only as a metaphor.

May I invite my friends to share with me a lot of new counter-intuitive insights in the new year? After all, I really want to keep you as a friend. Don’t forget that the day we are not surprised, we have not lived.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place